Crime and Safety in Cuba
Cuba has a reputation as a fairly safe country to visit. While you are there you should take the same precautions as you would in any country with a high rate of poverty – do not travel alone at night or display any obvious signs of wealth (expensive camera equipment, phones, jewelry, etc.) That being said, police are notoriously hard on crimes against tourists. Tourism is an important source of income for Cuba, so attacks on tourists can have especially serious consequences. Violent crime is very rarely directed at tourists.
The Cuban government does not publish crime statistics, so authorities can only make educated guesses about the amount of crime in Cuba. Cuba also doesn’t give its citizens much information about local crime – the state-run newspapers do not have a crime sections, and very few of the murders that occur get reported. According to the UN, the murder rate is 4.6 per 100,000 people, which is one of the lowest in the Caribbean and South America. We do know that Cuba has relatively few guns and violent crime is fairly uncommon.
Be mindful of Cuban laws and regulations during your stay. If you are an American, be aware that the authorities will regard you with a more suspicious eye. And no matter who you are, keep in mind that Cuban police can put you custody for any reason.
The Black Market and Poverty
Cuba has a communist government that purports to distribute wealth evenly among its citizens. Most Cubans receive around 20 Cuban pesos per month, which is not enough to cover the cost of living. It’s common for Cuban citizens to make extra money by illegal means – by stealing from the government, stealing from tourists, or selling contraband goods on the black market.
In 2015, 18 government officials were put in jail because of their involvement in a black market for eggs. President Raúl Castro himself has spoken out against the high level of corruption in the Cuban government, and started a campaign in 2009 to weed out officials who had found illegal ways to make extra money.
For many natives, the black market serves as way to make ends meet, and a place to buy items that the limited government salary makes unaffordable.
Petty Theft and Pickpocketing
Only buy cigars that come with a certificate of authenticity. If you buy counterfeits, you will be fined by Cuban customs when you leave the country. Other common scams include currency exchange. Do not exchange money with someone you meet on the street – you can be fairly certain that they’re going to give you a bad exchange rate or worse, give you counterfeit money. ATMs are readily available in Cuban cities.
Pickpocketing and opportunistic thefts are common in Cuba, while armed robberies are far less common. If you leave something unattended, especially in a busy city like Havana, chances are good that it will be taken. Havana Vieja, the old part of Havana, is one of the most popular areas for tourists to visit, and the high concentration of tourists attracts pickpockets.
Jinteros and Jinteras – Hustling and Prostitution
Jintero means “jockey” in English, but the word more accurately translates to “hustler.” It’s common for a foreign visitor to strike up a conversation with a Cuban who seems chummy and happy to offer suggestions about where to stay and what to eat. It starts out as a normal conversation and gradually becomes uncomfortable, as the jintero puts more pressure on you to take their suggestion. These types of low-level conmen receive a kickback from the hotel or the restaurant for bringing in business. You aren’t necessarily being robbed, but you are being manipulated.
Jinteras are the female counterparts to male hustlers.
The transaction is not always explicit. Cuban women will expect their dates to pay for an evening out on the town, and many are eager to find foreign boyfriends who might help them immigrate. These women are not prostitutes, but the same type of opportunists that you would find in any relatively poor country. That being said, some women will explicitly ask tourists to pay them for sexual favors. If you are a male traveling alone you will most likely be approached outside of nightclubs and tourist hotels.
Castro has taken a hard line against prostitution. In 1998 he claimed to have rounded up and jailed thousands of prostitutes and over a hundred pimps, and he has put in place an aggressive campaign to send prostitutes through reform programs. The police occasionally raid nightclubs to limit this type of behavior, and a foreign client could easily find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Women arrested for prostitution can serve a jail sentence of up to two years.
But low wages make it difficult for people to afford basic necessities, and prostitution is one of the many ways Cubans use tourists to supplement their income. Many prostitutes in Cuba will often work only when they desperately need to make ends meet.
Fidel Castro’s government did not look kindly on homosexuality, and to this day the government does not recognize same-sex unions. The Cuban government’s treatment of homosexuals was particularly harsh from the 1960s to the 1980s, when many gay men were sent to labor camps. Known homosexuals were not allowed to have certain jobs. Recently Cuba’s gay rights movement has grown, and Raúl Castro’s daughter, Mariela Castro, is an active and outspoken supporter of gay rights.
Homosexual acts were legalized in 1979, but it is illegal to publicly express homosexual orientation. There are still many parts of Cuban society that are hostile to the idea of homosexuality. And some say that like so much in Cuba, the government has painted a much prettier picture than most Cubans experience on a daily basis. It’s difficult to verify the statistics, but police harassment of homosexuals is believed to be fairly common.
Cuba’s Totalitarian Law Enforcement
Cuba’s socialist government demands strict fealty from its citizens. In the 1960s, Cuba’s government created the motto: “In a fortress under siege, all dissent is treason.” Do not try to start a conversation about Castro’s politics with the locals. Cubans are used to being heavily monitored by their government, and might get the wrong idea about your intentions. Visitors are also subject to intense scrutiny. If someone from the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) overhears you criticizing the Cuban government, you could swiftly find yourself in trouble with the authorities.
There is a large police presence in Cuba, and a large network of informants that guarantees that the government can keep a close eye on the population. After the violence of the 1950s revolution, the Cuban government formed the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) to get a handle on the crime wave that had followed the government’s upheaval. The CDR acts as a neighborhood watch. As many Cubans still remember, representatives from the CDR used to be posted on every city block. To this day, the CDR serves as network of informers that keeps tabs on everyone in the city, and provides the police with records of residents’ activities and associations.
But as of late, participants in the CDR have become noticeably less active. There aren’t as many lookouts nowadays, and the government has been trying to muster its citizens to revive CDR’s glory days.
There are lots of unlicensed taxis in Cuba. Licensed taxis will have meters. Make sure that you confirm the price of the trip before you get in the car.
If you rent a car, you will probably experience light traffic since few Cubans can afford their own cars. Because of the lack of traffic, people and livestock tend to be less cautious when crossing streets, so make sure to pay careful attention at all times. Keep in mind that Cuban drivers have a reputation for being speedy and somewhat reckless.
All of the cars – taxis and rentals – are quite old. Cubans are extremely adept at fixing these cars, but you will probably encounter some minor mechanical problems in most Cuban cars.
Inside cities, roads are usually well maintained. Driving through the countryside you are likely to encounter some bumpy stretches. Some highways, such as the highway that leads to Viñales, have reputations for having a lot of potholes.
Safest Places to Visit
You can safely visit most of Cuba’s destinations without worrying about much besides petty theft. Don’t miss the following cities.
• Baracoa was founded in 1510, making it the oldest city in Cuba. It is fairly isolated, and is surrounded by some of the most striking scenery in the country.
• Trinidad is famous for having well-preserved and colorful colonial architecture. Much of the city’s infrastructure caters to visitors.
For absolute tranquility head to one of Cuba’s islands or resort destinations. They have clear water and underwater wildlife.
• The beaches at Guardalavaca are especially scenic, with white sand and clear green-blue waters. There are resorts along the beach, but it remains an authentically Cuban town.
• Cayo Levisa is in Cuba’s western province of Pinar del Río. It has a pristine beach near mangrove forests. Visitors come here to go snorkeling around the black coral reefs and shipwrecks just off the shore. The beach of Playa Mayor can get busy, but there are smaller beaches to the east that are more secluded.
• Cayo Largo del Sur has a small but thriving ex-pat community and beautiful beaches. You can come here to go snorkeling and swimming in the gentle surf.
• Isla de la Juventud is Cuba’s largest island. It does not have a permanent settlement of Cubans, but there are resorts and an ecological reserve.
• Negotiate the price of any taxi ride before you get in the car. It’s a common scam for taxi drivers to overcharge for insurance. Stipulate that you are only paying for basic insurance.
• Do not engage with someone who is pressuring you to go to a particular hotel or restaurant. You can generally avoid the average hustler if you do not strike up a conversation with someone who seems aggressively friendly.
• Do not carry expensive electronics or jewelry.
• Carry money and other valuables in a bag that you keep on your person at all times. Make sure all of your bags and purses have sturdy zippers.
• Do not travel alone at night.
• Memorize your route before you leave, and make sure you can consult a map. Remember, Internet is not widely available in Cuba and you can’t look up maps on your phone. Do not wander in unfamiliar locations.
• Before you enter Cuba you will have sign up for a state-sponsored tour. Make sure to show up to scheduled appointments and tours.
U.S. Embassy in Havana
Calzada between L & M Streets,
International: Dial 011
Phone: (53)(7) 839-4100
Emergencies Only (After Hours) Dial (+53)(7)-831-4100
Cuba has a reputation as a safe place to visit. As long as you steer clear of inciting the government or the police force, you will be able to peaceably enjoy Cuba’s many beautiful old cities and stunning beaches.